Blackberry Picking

Poetry Monday has been on holiday recently. It’s back on a Saturday night, in special honour of the great poet Seamus Heaney who died this week. Poetry doesn’t really do celebrities, but if it did, Seamus Heaney would be an A-lister. Nobel przewinner, poet in residence at Harvard, certainly one of the most celebrated writers of recent times, and yet so much of his writing is grounded in the everyday, and the ordinary. This poem is written precisely for this time of year. It’s from his Death of a Naturalist collection, (published 1966)  which was one of the first books of poetry I ever read, I think, as we studied it for GCSE. It was definitely one of those poems that made me sit up and realise that particular power that poetry has – and the way that the right choice of words can convey so much.  The meaning that I take from it is the illustraition of one of the lessons you have to learn as you grow up – that there are some things in life, some moments, which you must simply enjoy. They’re not to keep, or preserve or to hold on to.

Heaney’s writing, his poetry and his words, on the other hand; that we can hold on to.

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

LunchFox Shopping.

It’s OK to hate all ‘Back to School’ slogans, right? As an adult? I think I was supposed to hate them when I was actually going back to school, but I (mostly) really liked school, and I love new stationery. so it was OK. As a mum, Back 2 School -the 2 drives me particularly nuts -is just shorthand for Spend Lots of Cash.  This is less exciting. One thing that is especially annoying to spend money on is lunchboxes. Instead of the plastic box with a tiny plastic handle of lunchboxes of yore, modern lunch bags are mini cool bags which you can never quite clean enough, with a lining which splits, and a zip that catches ALL THE DAMN time. And because you HAVE to buy one with the correct Angry Birds/Hello Kitty picture on, they are also fiendishly expensive.

Lunch box of yore.

Lunch box of yore.

Anyway. There is another way, my friends. A recycled, stylish, practical CHEAP lunch box solution available IN BEDFORD.  At Charisma Gift Shop, in the posh arcade. (I think it does have a proper name, but everyone knows where you mean when you say the posh arcade,) It’s a lovely shop, full of pretty scarves and nice soap and great jewellery. And it sells these:

A window of lunch boxes!

A window of lunch boxes!

foxy lunch box

foxy lunch box

They are £4.99 each, and come with a foil lining. There are loads of nice designs to choose from; I like the fox one and the apples. Best bit? They are made from recycled plastic! Charisma sells the jumbo storage bags too, which are handy for storing laundry, clothing-to-grow-into, dressing up, school work… pretty much anything! And the storage bags are just £4.99 too. I’ve got quite a lot of these already (ahem) but I couldn’t resist this bike design one. I did stop to wonder if you could indeed store a fold up bike in it. Would be handy.

Bike Bag.

Bike Bag.

Jamie Oliver and the Big Telly Argument.

So I heard today that Jamie Oliver is launching a new TV series about cooking on a budget. I really quite like Jamie Oliver. I admire his campaigning zeal – and the fact that he’s mostly used his fame to highlight the inequality in the diets of the rich and the poor. I love his wife’s range of childrenswear. I love the concept of his restaurant that trains unemployed people from difficult backgrounds to be qualified chefs. He didn’t just vanish up his own high-cusine-arse. He is, in many ways, the people’s chef.

And being worth an estimated  £150million doesn’t necessarily change that. Although it does make the premise of his new programme – that the way that supermarkets operate is having a detrimental effect on the diet of low-income families – a little harder to digest as you wonder quite how much of that fortune was made from adverts for Sainsburys. “OH, that!” he seems to be gaffawing. “Well. I mean clearly it’s OK for people like me to shop at Sainsburys, (though in reality I prefer a deli/farmers’ market/Waitrose/Harrods Food Hall combo) because I can afford to do it better. It’s not really designed for the, er, poor.” The poor, it seems, have misappropriated supermarkets. They embraced convenience food a little too closely. It’s time to back off, paupers.

The thing is, I agree with a lot of what he says about eating well on a budget. Supermarkets are tricky to get right. You can easily end up buying too much of something you’ll never eat before it goes off. or being tricked into a buy one get 15 free type deal of awful frozen meat products. You can pay far too much for something you can get much cheaper – and often much better quality – at your local fruit market. If you’re on a budget, you have to think much harder about eating well, and the supermarket is not necessarily the place to think hard.

In an interview with The Radio Times he said he was “not judgemental” of poor families and pointed to his experiences of people on low incomes whilst filming his previous TV show.

But then he had to go and say this:

“I’m not judgmental, but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in Ministry Of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive ******* TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”

And, oh. It seems that Jamie may have taken on more than his recommended amount of Daily Mail. The big-telly-argument is a favourite of the right-wing press when an argument is needed that the poor will just insist on making themselves poorer. “They’ve got no bloody furniture but they’ve got a massive satellite dish pinned up to the side of the house and a 60 inch flatscreen. Ha! See? No sense, those people!” (I paraphrase, a bit.) OK, Jamie, let’s think about that massive telly.

(Firstly – perhaps it looks especially large because it is in a very small room, and therefore you sit closer to it. Lots of rich people have vast TVs, but that’s ok, because they also have 50ft lounges, so when you’re on the sofa, the telly looks a lot smaller.)

If you, Jamie, or indeed anyone else on a decent salary, wanted to buy a new TV, where would you go? You’d probably stroll into John Lewis (other retailers exist, though Mrs Oliver has impeccable taste so I bet it’d be JL) and choose the one you wanted. You’d put it on your credit card, and walk out. Or your debit card, as you’ve got that kind of money readily available. Say you chose this one:

Samsung UE40F5500 LED HD 1080p Smart TV, 40″ with Freeview HD Special Offer: Save £100 £479.95 Buy Samsung UE40F5500 LED HD 1080p Smart TV, 40" with Freeview HD Online at johnlewis.com

Pretty good deal, hey?

If you were a poor family who wanted a new TV, where would you go? You haven’t got £500. You can’t get a credit card – perhaps you don’t own a debit card either. You might go somewhere like Brighthouse, where you can get some credit, and pay it back weekly. In cash, if you need to. Good news! You could get the same TV!

The less good news is how much you need to pay for it: with 156 weekly installments of £11.04 at an APR of 29.9%, you can have that very same TV for £1,722.24. Ah, less of a good deal then.

No one in Jamie Oliver’s position would pay almost three times as much as they needed to for a telly. But they’ve got a bit more choice, haven’t they? And that’s what much of this boils down to: choice. Speaking personally, we don’t have a big TV. We don’t have a proper DVD player either, we use Rich’s old Playstation 2, which sounds like it’s going to take off when you use it. (Pretty sure it’s not going to take off. Hope not!) We’re not particularly fussed about TV. But in the evenings, we have other options. We have a PC, two smartphones, a laptop. Or we read. We could use the kids’ Nintendo Wii, but I tend to smash stuff with the remote, so it’s best avoided. I bet the Olivers have a couple of iPads; their kids probably have iPads. I bet they have a laptop or two, I bet they own smartphones. Having a TV really doesn’t seem that important. But also: I bet Jamie and Jools go out to the cinema (£14 + for two tickets.) I bet they go out to the theatre a lot. (£40+ for two tickets) I bet they go out for dinner (although that’s probably an interesting outing.) And then there are holidays. A nice break for some sun at Easter, a long holiday in a villa in Tuscany over the summer, a week in Cornwall; perhaps a mini-break in Autumn. (I’m only guessing, here, but I’m happy to bet they don’t do a static caravan holiday for a week in Great Yarmouth. ) No telly needed, really, if you think about it.

What if you’ve got a disposable income of £50 a month? Doesn’t run to many cinema trips, visits to Tuscany, nights out, iPads, meals at Pizza Express, trips to museums and galleries (although lots are free to go into, the travel is not free. ) Culture costs cash. TV, even at extortionate APR, costs less. What if you’ve got no iPad/Kindle/WiFi at home? The long summer holidays stretching out before you with the kids at home; no long holiday abroad to look forward to. Suddenly, a TV seems a LOT more essential. And yes, people can read, for free, and I would always advocate that. But then I would. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a house where reading was valued. Books were always available. My parents were able to support me through an English degree. I’m very grateful, but I am aware that it’s not the same for everyone. TVs have come to represent a community, a sort of equality. Pensioners get their licence fee paid for them, in an admission of how TV can be a lifeline for the vulnerable.

So Jamie, I appreciate your sentiments, I hope that you are successful in your mission to make people aware of how much better you can eat on low a budget when you are not shopping in supermarkets. I just hope you appreciate the realities of living in poverty in modern Britain. Of the cash points that charge you £1.75 for withdrawing cash – which is your only payment option – of the money it costs to get kids to the market on a bus , and how every journey take just that little bit longer if you don’t own a car. Of the irresponsible lending, the way that people on electricity meters pay more for their power. (Mention slow-cooking a pork joint whilst you’re out at work all day to someone on an electricity meter and watch their eyes widen in fear.) Of the cuts to tax-credits and housing benefits and the lack of opportunity. TV has been providing escapism for decades. Some people need that more than others. Keep the TV off the menu, Oliver, and we’ll be OK.

Happy Campers !

School shoe shopping. Guaranteed to suck the will to live out of the most enthusiastic of parents. The will to live, and also the cash. I was granted something of a reprieve this summer: both Polly and Will had new school shoes in May, and they have miraculously managed to stay the same size over the summer! They’re a bit scuffed -shoes not kids- but they are not going to crush their (already quite massive) feet. We may make it to half term. With only the new starter to buy school shoes for, I got itchy feet. And look what I found:

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Polly may not have outgrown her school shoes, but she has grown out of her crocs, flip flops AND her converse. So there was a need for some new shoes. (I basically need to justify buying the kids nicer shoes than I have.) They’re from Schuh. I think these junior campers are the just the coolest. Beautifully and sturdily made, with no laces but loads of support. Schuh offer free standard delivery and easy-peasy returns, if you want to buy online. And these babies are sale items! (The shoes, not my children, clearly!)
Rich already owns the adult version of Will’s new campers, and I’ve had my eye on the grown up versions of Polly’s for a while. I sense a weird matchy-matchy shoe thing about to happen..

20130821-173319.jpg.

On doubt, worry and writing anyway.

I read the most beautiful article today. Wry, poignant, and so true I wanted to shout ‘yes. YES. YEEEEEES!’ at the screen as I read it. (Never advisable.) It’s about how it feels, and what it means, to be afraid to do what you really want to do. To live your life feeling that your are always somehow inadequate, or just not quite good enough. It’s by Anna Maxted (author of one of my favourite books Behaving like Adults, which makes me snort out loud with laughter.) Read the article here, if you haven’t already. It struck a chord with me, because it is exactly how I felt a couple of years ago.

For a long time, I was scared of writing. I knew I loved it, and that I wanted to do it, but every time I went to write something, the fear of other people reading it and sneering at it appeared out of nowhere and stopped me. I studied creative writing as part of my degree, and I loved it. But I was so intimidated. Many of the people on my course were clearly brilliant at writing fiction, and poetry. Some had already had things published. All the stuff read out in class was original and exciting and it scared me. My work was OK – not terrible, but certainly not as gripping as the other stuff being written in those classrooms. I decided that writing was great, and all, but not for me. I also developed a complete fear of anyone reading my work. People reading things I had written made me feel like I was naked.

It was only years later, after Sarah and I set up our business – which was something we were both terrified of, but egged each other on enough to manage to actually do it – did I feel that we had a story to tell, and I started this blog to tell it. Perhaps, because I had already done something that scared me, it became easier to do it again. I can’t tell you how terrified I was of getting it wrong. Petrified. But actually, the process of writing it was easier, and far more enjoyable than I thought it would be. I began to (whisper it) actually enjoy it. I began to think that I might be capable of writing other things too. As I wrote more, I got better at it, and people were so positive and encouraging that I began to think that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t quite pushing the boundaries of modern fiction. It didn’t matter, because it meant something. Not only to me, but to some of the people who read it. There are many things that I would still like to do, but am worried about failing at.  But increasingly, I see that whilst in some cases, I am fearful for the right reasons (I have at least several insane ideas for various ridiculous projects a week, all of them scare me – with good reason. They are all stupid.) in some cases, I am really just worrying about failing and looking silly. Well, you don’t need much perspective to see that a little bit of looking a bit silly because of something not working out is a lot better than a lot of looking on at other people trying things out and thinking ‘oh, I wish I could do that.’

As Anna says:

“In our hearts, we know what’s right. I tell my son, “If you didn’t run and jump, you wouldn’t get hurt, you’d be a bored child, sitting on a sofa, with no bruised knee. But you love climbing, exploring – the knocks are worth it for the joy.”

So I bite my tongue, and let the children climb to the top of every tree. I refuse to infect them with my fear; instead, I learn from them – try, because if you think you can do it, you probably can.”

If you want to raise confident children -and I do – I don’t want my kids to have the same fear of putting up their hand in class, of reading out their work, as I had – then you have to be prepared to take a few risks of your own. The last few years has taught me that the benefits of ignoring the fear and doing something worthwhile anyway far outweigh the slight hiccups and total blind panic that always ensue in the initial stages of Doing Scary Things.

By the way: this is my 100th blog post. To everyone who has read on so far – firstly, congratulations! You’ve sat through a LOT of poorly constructed sentences with questionable grammar! You’ve listened to me waffling on, you’ve suffered poor puns and you are STILL READING! (Is it some kind of compulsive sadistic thing? If so, I believe there is therapy available.) But thank you. It’s been your positive feedback, encouraging remarks and sharing that has allowed me to stop wallowing in a pool of self-doubt (all v boring) and actually write. When I write my Work of Great Genius, I shall dedicate it to you all.*

*Thereby forcing you to buy a copy.

The blog that Anna Maxted mentions is What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid? You can find it here. Very thought provoking stuff.

Rani, 15, West Lafayette, IN (Phillips Academy Andover) Image from Tumblr.

Rani, 15, West Lafayette, IN (Phillips Academy Andover) Image from Tumblr.

Our Summer of Cycling

I decided some time ago that I wanted to dedicate time this summer holidays to cycling with the kids; the fact that we appear to be actually having a summer this year was the deciding factor. It’s pretty tricky to encourage everyone to use their bikes when it’s constantly chucking it down with rain outside.  We’re in a bit of a transitional stage with cycling at the moment, in that everyone enjoys cycling, and at this time of year Rich and I probably do at least 80% of our individual journeys by bike, but we don’t yet use cycling as a way of moving the kids from one place to another. We tend to ‘go for a bike ride’ round the orchard near our house, or at Priory Marina, or the kids will cycle to the park and we’ll walk behind. That kind of thing. Polly and Will have been cycling for some time, and really enjoy it; Tilly is happy to pootle about on her bike (still with stabilizers for the moment.) She is not as fast as she’d like to be, and this causes quite a lot of, er ‘frustration.’ (A polite term for ‘massive tantrums and screaming hissy fits whilst her bike is thrown into the kerb.’)  So I decided that this summer, we would try to use cycling more as a way of getting to places we wanted to go to, starting by trying to make at least one journey by bike every day. And so far, we have, even if it’s just been round to the shop for milk. For longer rides, Tilly goes in her seat on the back of my bike  – from where she likes to give opinions on how fast we are going, what other people are wearing, where we should be going, why she doesn’t like our choice of destination, etc, etc.

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There’s loads of information online about cycling with kids, I’ve found the Sustrans website particularly helpful and encouraging, and there’s the Bike Radar page too.

Infographic time!

awesomeCycling

There are, obviously, loads of benefits of cycling. Here were the things that basically swung it for me:

It’s faster than walking.  (With less whining time.)

It’s cheaper than taking kids into town, or anywhere else on the bus. (£3.20 each way!!)

It’s also cheaper than parking in town (around 60p per hour.)

It’s exercise. In theory, exercise makes you happier, fitter and MAKES YOU SLEEP BETTER.  Did you hear that kids???

So far, after a few weeks of regular cycling, I can conclude that:

  • Cycle lanes are the best thing since sliced bread: we need more of them.
  • Wide pavements are a beautiful thing.
  • I lose more bike lock keys than is recommended for maintaining sanity. And bikes.

It’s been great so far  – the weather has helped – but we’ve had some truly terrifying moments too. Cars reversing quickly out of driveways without checking for young cyclists, trying to use pedestrian crossings at busy intersections and having to cram three bikes onto a narrow island in the middle of a main road, negotiating somewhat erratic mobility scooters. We’ve cycled in the hot sun and in the rain (stylish rain ponchos on, obvs!) We’re converted. But successful cycling with children is something I think depends a lot on confidence. I’m planning to spend the summer building that confidence, learning the routes which best lend themselves to safe cycling, and instilling in the kids a sense that cycling is a legitimate and brilliant form of everyday transport, as well as a hobby.

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Riding through Russell Park

I’m going to be writing more about our summer of cycling over the next few weeks, and I’ve got a few guest blogs lined up from people far more experienced than me about their experiences of cycling with a young family.  I’m hoping that one of the kids will write – or something – about their views on it. I’m excited! The only irksome thing (apart from losing bike lock keys,) is the fact that Will now ‘NEEDS’ a pair of cycling gloves. Essential for any 6-year-old lad, obviously.